It’s veganuary, but is the vegan lifestyle accessible for everyone?

As a big advocate of animal rights, I fully support the recent trend towards veganism. The number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2019, an exciting and positive shift. However, I am increasingly struggling with the way this ethical behaviour has been hijacked by Instagram-influencer hopefuls and middle-class virtue-signallers. I worry this has the damaging result of excluding certain segments of society and perpetuating a form of class vilification, where the less affluent are judged for their failure to ditch meat.

For many, veganism has become a trendy lifestyle choice, catering to the middle-class clean-eating brigade who entangle a plant-based diet with obscure health foods like goji berries, quinoa and tempeh, as well as gaining something of a cult following among the young and affluent. #vegan has more than 61 million posts listed on Instagram, and on-trend campaigns such as Veganuary rack up huge numbers of followers during the month.

Newly emerging vegan brands, from Hippeas to Vivera and Nakd, have latched onto the sudden popularity surge in plant-based products and are enthusiastically exploiting the amount vegans are prepared to pay. The word ‘vegan’ on packaging has become a marketing tool, an adjective for ‘trendy and expensive’. Brands are eager to capitalise on this to justify hiking up prices, even when the ingredients themselves are relatively cheap compared with many meaty or veggie products.

Maybe none of this matters. As long as people are cutting down on eating meat, surely their actual motives for being vegan are irrelevant. Maybe some of these new vegans, if speaking honestly, only wear their ‘Vegan Vibes’ tote bags for aesthetic purposes and care more about appearing to care about animals than actually giving much of a damn about the wellbeing of livestock. But even if it is true that some plant-based diet disciples may fickly abandon the cause later when a new lifestyle fad becomes more on-trend, it’s still positive for now, right?

To some extent I believe this is true. However it has come about, people eating fewer animal products must be a good thing. But my concern with veganism’s rise to fame is that, fuelled by the affluent, it puts off large segments of society who do not identify with these expensive brands or trendy T-shirt logos, giving veganism an aura of privilege and inaccessibility.

I worry that a number of things send a signal to working-class people that veganism is not for them. From the cost of many vegan alternatives which immediately cut out less affluent shoppers, to the sorts of supermarkets stocking these brands (not usually Morrisons or Aldi).

Other vegan lifestyle guides help perpetuate this split. Take vegan recipes. Opening up a recipe for simple cookies I find a confusing bombardment of exotic ingredients from agave syrup to flaxseed and oat flour. Who has these types of food sitting around in their cupboards? Again, these recipes seem curated to appeal to a certain type of organic health-food store shopper, at the cost of scaring away those who might otherwise be prepared to experiment with cheap vegan biscuits.

The particularly frustrating thing for me is that these ingredients are not necessary to make delicious vegan cookies. You literally need to replace the butter with vegan spread and hey presto! And you can make a tasty vegan cake using just flour, water, vegetable oil, sugar and vinegar. No flaxseeds required.

It is, in fact, very easy to find cheap, nutritious vegan food: pulses, vegetables, some brands of soya mince — to name but a few. However, these sorts of food do take time and kitchen space to prepare, something not everyone has easy access to. And if people are already turned off the idea of veganism, perceiving it to be simply a fad for those with the time and means, then they will be less likely to faff around making their food purposefully vegan.

With further development of plant-based meat substitutes and an increasing number of brands launching vegan products, I’m hopeful that we may see a drop in prices at some point in the not-too-distant future. But we’re not there yet and attitudes need to be changed before we can hope to reach this point.

With veganism as it exists today feeling like a pretty exclusive activity, I worry that it could be used as a tool to villainize the working classes for not caring about the environment — with less affluent communities deemed morally lacking by coconut milk matcha latte slurpers. Those with the means are able to adopt a sanctimonious tone, wearing their M&S bamboo bag filled with tofu chunks and soya milk ice-cream as a badge of moral superiority, judging those who make less virtuous food choices. However, before berating anyone for eating animal products, we need to acknowledge that everyone faces different barriers to accessing veganism.

This privilege problem is an issue which extends to many environmental movements. Groups such as Extinction Rebellion are predominantly represented by affluent urban dwellers. Activities the group advocates, such as getting arrested, place a far bigger burden on some segments of society than others. Working-class people who don’t get help from their connections to secure a job, and those from ethnic minorities who already face higher police scrutiny, will suffer much more from having a criminal record.

Veganism, just like many environmental movements, advocates positive change to care about animals and the planet. But those at the forefront of vegan advocacy need to work out how to involve a wider segment of society, and address veganism’s privilege problem. Only then will we be able to create a more inclusive movement, allowing anyone from any background to shake off the elitism and chic Instagram filters, and just eat vegan food.

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